A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Advent 1 ~ Matthew 1:1-17 (see below for a fantastic video/song version of Matthew’s Begats by Andrew Peterson)
I’m betting you’ve never heard a sermon based on the begats in Matthew’s gospel, and have certainly never had those begats sung to you! So why are you being treated to this today? Every December the whole world is in preparation mode for Christmas, but the church insists on being in anticipation mode.
For us, rightly, Christmas doesn’t begin until the 25th and then lasts for 12 days until Epiphany. We’re just getting started as the world is wrapping Christmas up (get it?).
So instead of waiting until after Christmas to talk deeply about the story of Jesus’ birth I’ve chosen to dive in deep for the whole month. No, that doesn’t mean we’ll sing any more Christmas carols before the 24th. Sorry. It means instead of us wading into ancient prophecies and ‘apocalyptic darkness in need of light’ this year, (which is the usual lectionary fare), we’re just going to look at the heart of the story itself. I’m going to do it through a series of character studies. Next week we’ll talk about Joseph, Jesus’ dad. The week after that we’ll look at Zechariah’s story – he’s the father of John the Baptizer. Then on the Sunday before Christmas we’ll talk about Mary, the mother of Jesus. That leaves Jesus’ story for Christmas Eve.
Now, how shall we prepare for all of these character studies? By looking at where they all came from. And so we turn to the first words in Matthew’s gospel and examine this long list of generations of Jesus’ ancestors.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel had one overarching purpose – to persuade everyone that Jesus was the Messiah promised by scripture. So every single chance Matthew gets to show Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew takes. In this case it’s not so much a prophecy as a lineage. If Jesus is Messiah he must be connected to King David – so out comes the family tree.
I’ve just used two different expressions – lineage and family tree – but the Greek word used in Matthew 1:1 is geneseos – which is literally translated as genesis. Sound familiar? It’s supposed to.
Isn’t Matthew clever that within the first words of this gospel we have a direct connection to the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures – the book of Genesis. Like I said, that’s Matthew’s goal – make the connections.
So, the genesis of Jesus is found in his ancestors. And so we get the begats. It’s too bad that word has fallen out of usage because it’s a really fun word. Begat! The song version of this reading was fun, but it left out the most significant verse for understanding how this all fits together.
That verse is Matthew 1:17 – There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and yet another fourteen from the Babylonian exile to Christ.
There are lots of theories about why the 14 generations thing was used. This is my favourite, and the one I think is most persuasive. Remember how Matthew’s primary goal is to make a case for Jesus being the promised Messiah. If you like numbers you’re going to love this.
The book of Daniel 9:24–27 states that ‘seventy weeks of years’, meaning 490 years, would pass between the restoration of Jerusalem after the Exile and the coming of the Messiah.
Since generations were commonly placed at 35 years, this means exactly 14 generations. (14×35=490).
Connecting back from the Exile to David, and then back to put Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Jesus’ family tree only makes the case stronger.
Now, if you are a persnickety person and insist on things like scientific accuracy and attention to detail, and you were to painstakingly comb through the history of all this you’d discover that Matthew actually missed a few generations in the list, and that the last collection is only 13 generations and not 14.
Thankfully, we’re not biblical literalists so we don’t have to watch our heads explode as we do theological gymnastics to explain that all away.
The truth is, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is that Matthew is desperately trying to tell us a story, not give us a scientific lesson.
It’s a story about family, about connection with one’s roots, and about how that story is both embedded as part of our past and projected as part of our future.
And that makes this a story about hope.
I think that’s why we do genealogies. They’re very popular these days.
Jesus, of course, didn’t have the luxury of just taking a swab of his cheek and sending it into ancestry.ca to check his DNA.
No, they had to tell stories. And their stories are filled with all kinds of colourful characters.
Perhaps you’ve done a family tree or traced your genealogy – but for sure you’ve told family stories. I’d wager there are some stories you tell and some you leave out – some ancestors or extended family members that get more attention and some who are quietly left out of the stories.
But imagine if you were Jesus telling his stories! He had Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, King David, all sorts of other kings – all in his line. Lots to brag about, right? Sure!
But, it’s also a family tree filled with crimes of abusive imperial power, murder, incest, and fratricide. Not to mention adultery, slavery, and dishonesty.
How does your family look by comparison!?
Perhaps it’s comforting to know that the worst things you and yours have ever done pale in comparison to Abraham and his sons, and David and his sons!
And if God forgave them and built a kingdom on them…well, surely forgiveness for our family indiscretions is possible.
Our son Ben took up the challenge of doing our genealogies and he’s found some amazing stuff. He’s got the tree mostly done, but he doesn’t want to share it until he learns more of the stories – what people did for a living, what impacts they may have had, where they lived and why they moved. I can’t wait!
He told me one thing that blew my mind.
When Cynthia and I were in Ireland a few years ago you may remember me telling stories of a town on the southeast coast called Ardmore where I felt mystically connected to the Holy Spirit in a powerful way. It was, for me, what Celtic Christianity calls a thin place.
Why there? What made that place so special for me?
Well, Ben traced my ancestors back to the folks who lived in Ireland and found not only the parish where they were baptized but the street where they lived.
No, it wasn’t in Ardmore – but it wasn’t very far away!
Could it be that I’m spiritually connected to that region and those people because of my ancestry? You bet it could!
So. What does all this have to do with us, with Advent, and with hope? Let’s take them in reverse.
Hope in Christian terms is different than wishing. We incorrectly use the terms interchangeably. They’re quite different.
Wishing is what happens when you buy a lottery ticket, or walk into a situation completely unprepared. Wishing would like for good things to happen but has absolutely no expectation that the good will happen.
It’s just a dream. A wish.
But it isn’t a hope.
Hope, in the spiritual sense, means an anticipation of an expectation.
Hope is that confident sense of waiting for something you truly believe will happen but just hasn’t transpired yet.
Hope is trusting in the future fulfilment of the promises of God.
Seeing Jesus as the Messiah is the answer to the people’s hope. Jesus as the incarnation is the fulfilment of God’s promise to be with us in deep and meaningful ways. As people of faith we live in hope – not wishing for what might be, but waiting in anticipation for what we trust will be – God with us in a special way.
In Advent we do a kind of pretend thing where we imagine that this stuff hasn’t already happened.
We await the birth of Jesus even though it happened two millennia ago.
We speak of anticipation of a hope that has already been realized.
And yet, we also know that God’s Kingdom hasn’t nearly been fully realized yet.
We catch glimpses, there are moments, sometimes seasons, but we’re not there yet.
So we continue to live in hope. Waiting for further fulfilment of God’s promise of light and love.
But I have to say this – and maybe you’ve been thinking it too – if Jesus’ birth didn’t inaugurate the kingdom, and his life and teaching and death and resurrection didn’t bring it all about, well, what’s it gonna take? I mean, hope only works if it’s trusting in something expected. It’s been two thousand years and we still haven’t seen it fully. How many generations do we need to wait?
That’s a fair question, even as it kinda misses the point. I’d invite us to reframe our thinking.
The point isn’t that Jesus arrived on the planet and brought something that didn’t exist before.
No. God has always been present.
God’s kingdom has always, is currently, and ever shall be surrounding and enfolding us – even here, even now.
It’s not that Jesus brought a new, not previously existing light into the world – it’s that Jesus brought a new way to see the light and love that is already everywhere.
Jesus incarnates God’s light and love and it shines through him – just like it shone through every generation that came before him.
Through all those generations of faithful but deeply flawed, deeply human people – from Abraham through Isaac, through Jacob through Judah and his brothers, through Perez and Zerah (Tamar’s kids), through Hezron, through Aram, through Amminadab, through Nahshon, through Salmon, through Rahab’s son Boaz, through Ruth’s son Obed, through Jesse, and even through the immensely morally complicated King David.
After David, God’s light and love continued to shine through the generations through Bathsheba’s son Solomon, through Rehoboam, through Abijah, through Asa, through Jehoshaphat, through Joram, through Uzziah, through Jotham, through Ahaz, through Hezekiah, through Manasseh, through Amon, through Josiah, through Jehoiachin and his brothers, and it even shone through the people as they were taken into the Babylonian Exile – although they found it hard to perceive.
When the Babylonian Exile ended God’s love and light shone on through Shealtiel, through Zerubbabel, through Abiud, through Eliakim, through Azor, through Zadok, through Achim, through Eliud, through Eleazar, through Matthan, through Jacob (Jesus’ grandfather), and into the people we know so well – through Joseph, and Mary, and most incomparably deeply and brightly and powerfully through Jesus.
Generation after generation of God’s light and love shining – passed down through the generations – and the only thing lacking was degrees of awareness of how great and life-changing grasping it could be.
Fourteen generations, followed by fourteen generations, followed by fourteen generations of connection, of ups and downs, of hope.
But it doesn’t end with Jesus!
That light and love continues to flow through the generations that followed.
Do the math. 14 generations is about 500 years. 500, 1000, 1500, 2000 – each one 14 generations.
We are currently in the 14th generation following 4 sets of generations after Jesus!
Could this generation be another landmark one?
Could this generation be one in which the light and love of God that flows through every generation is revealed, and perceived, and seen, and demonstrated, and lived out, and embraced, and known, and transforms the world in ways we can only…hope?
Could our generation do that?
The world is clearly waiting for something – some-“body” – to show the Way.
Our Christian family tree may have some embarrassing branches to it, but we are connected, by the life-blood of Christ, to everyone on that tree – including Jesus.
It’s in our DNA to shine – to embody, to incarnate, and to share God’s light and love.
I “hope” we will.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I just like fancy theological oddities, but every 14 generations God’s Presence seems to be experienced more…noticeably.
Every 14th generation something special seems to happen among God’s people.
Whatever age you may be, that generation is now, is us.
I know it’s Advent and all, but…what are we waiting for?